Who Gets Violent?

For a long time it was thought that violence is a result of low self esteem.

However, the research of Baumeister, Bushman, and Campbell offers another account. People who are violent typically have a high self esteem (that is not to say that having a high self esteem means you are violent). So, who of those with high self esteem gets violent?

Remember the tale of Narcissus? Narcissus, a Greek character, was a beautiful hunter who fell in love with his reflection in the stream. Fixated upon his image and unable to leave it, Narcissus died.

Let’s relate this back to violence. Currently, studies are showing that violence results from someone undermining a narcissist’s view of him/herself. The idea is that narcissists think so highly of themselves that the violence is way to restore that view in the face of an ego threat.

Now let’s relate this to relationships. For example, I challenge my partner’s view of himself as masculine and strong, so he punches me to prove that I am wrong, thus restoring his self image. We know that violence in relationships is extremely common. Physical violence in relationships more commonly affects women — indeed it is the leading cause of injury to women ages 15-44 in the United States. Conversely, when it comes to male populations, various forms of psychological abuse appear more prevalent. But take note, both types of abuse affect both populations.

This research suggests that the personality profile of abusers may include a high degree of narcissism. What then, does domestic violence have in common with gang violence or war?

An interdisciplinary literature review (Baumeister, Smart, and Boden, 1996) found that favorable self-regard is linked to violence in one sphere after another. Murderers, rapists, wife beaters, violent youth gangs, aggressive nations, and other categories of violent people are all marked by strongly held views of their own superiority. When large groups of people differ in self-esteem, the group with the higher self esteem is generally the more violent one.
-American Psychological Society: Does Violence Result From Low Self-Esteem or From Threatened Egotism?

I’ve been mulling over these ideas for the past couple of weeks. Please keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive picture of violence. For further inquiry on self-esteem and violence, check out the plethora of Baumeister’s research, the original article, or the readings below. I hope it gave you something to think about as it did for me. Thoughts? I’ll be reading.


Further Reading:
-Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty, Baumeister
-Stability and level of self-esteem as predictors of anger arousal and hostility, Grannemann
-Hate Crimes, Levin & McDevitt
-The roots of evil, Staub

35 thoughts on “Who Gets Violent?

  1. Another reason for violence is a low serotonine level. So those who are violent should take a XTC-pill and chill out.

    OT: Narcissist always blame another for failures and never look at themselves critically. “The bitch deserves it” and “if you would just do as I say, this wouldn’t have happened” fit right in there.

    • Speaking from a male perspective, I also want to point out that men are often conditioned, from a very young age, to solve most problems through physical force, from the obvious, “this guy is picking on me, kick his ass”, to the subtler, “What, that screw won’t go in? ~reaches for a hammer~”. The problem is that this conditioning, while useful in certain genuinely dangerous situations, is maladaptive in almost all instances, and the worst part is, the more you use a tool, the more you come to rely on it. As someone who has occasionally had violent impulses (never acted upon) during arguments with women that I, in all other ways, loved and respected totally, I think it’s important for men when they are feeling angry and aggressive to take a couple of steps to defuse the situation.

      1.) Recognize the impulse for what it is. Conditioning that you don’t have to be a slave to.
      2.) Remove yourself from the situation. If, like me, you have a temper, the best thing for you at times can be to tell your partner, “I need to get out for a little while. I love you, and we will talk more when I get back, but I need a little space right now, so I am going to take it.”
      3.) HAVE that follow up talk. Open and honest communication makes both partners feel validated, and helps you get to the root of a problem rather than stewing in your anger.

      Keep in mind that, while women are not necessarily conditioned the same way, these steps can help them deal with anger issues as well. I hope others find these guidelines as helpful as I have.

  2. There’s an interesting scene in the West Wing (I believe it is from the Season 3 Premiere that was made in response to 9/11) where one of the characters, Charlie, discusses the motivation for people to join gangs. He made the point that people in gangs aren’t sad or ashamed of it; rather, it is a badge of honour to be inducted into one of these groups. They’re filled with pride at what they do and what they belong to – it’s not a mechanism to cope with a lack of self-esteem, but a method to “show” others how important and great they are and force others to recognize it.

    Having read the article now, I’d have to agree that violence probably is more prevalent amongst those who believe in their own superiority yet are quick to perceive challenges as a threat: Violence is a great (that is, effective) way to establish and reinforce your superiority over someone else. I’m sure we’ve all heard or seen stories about how you should “punch out the strongest guy in prison on your first day” to establish dominance over everyone else in the klink and all that. I think the point about *stability* in combination w/ high-self esteem (narcissism) is interesting: people with self-esteem who are stable don’t perceive insults/challenges as threats to their ego and tend to just shrug it off and walk away. Anyways, sorry for the long and boring comment!

    • Neat connection to the West Wing & prison discourse!

      The stability factor is definitely important. I still get confused about the stability between implicit/explicit self esteem. Can narcissists have low implicit self esteem or does this revert back to the low self esteem hypothesis?

      Love your long boring comments rob <3 ;P

      • I actually think that it really depends on how you measure self-esteem.

        a) There might be different kinds of self esteem in different areas: e.g. a guy might be very confident in his job, thinking he was the best there, but suck at private life and be realistic about it. So his general self-esteem might be average to high, while in another area that is important to him, it is low. Now challenge him on the issue that he actually is good at, and he will feel threatened much more than someone who is confident in all areas of his life.

        b) If you measure perceived self-esteem (questionnaire, interview) or take outwardly displayed attitude as measurement of self-esteem, the results are going to be very inconclusive. There are of course more impicit ways of measuring, and I don’t really know what Baumeister et al. were using, but for our common understanding I think we always go with either of the first two. This means we don’t really know what the underlying condition is, and as far as I know, often the people who display themselves as the most confident are actually quite insecure and their way of dealing with that, is to display what they perceive to be a high-confidence attitude.

  3. I can’t say I’m really surprised by this. All one has to do is go to High School to see people who think they’re superior to others beat on who they view as the weaker. The sad thing is that we’re breeding more and more narcissist because a lot of parents are constantly heaping their child with praise in order to boost their self esteem, which ends up causing the child to feel entitled, and thus unable to take criticism. America should really stop worshiping individualism. It’s great, but we take it too far and end up becoming greedy and not caring if we harm others physically or psychologically.

    • That’s an interesting connection that you make to individualism. This study was actually linked to a number of other studies about self-esteem in Eastern vs. Western cultures. The individualist cultures derive self esteem from the ability to manipulate their social environment to suit them, whereas collectivists derive self esteem from social harmony.

      ….the solution seems pretty obvious (though not simple) to me! :P

  4. I’m not entirely sure where the “violence comes from low self-esteem” thing comes from. It might stem from making the victim feel better about themselves.

    I do recall being told the same bollocks by the school counselor in primary school though.

      • I can’t really fault them for doing what they believe is right, but I certainly can for them being wrong. I honestly don’t recall feeling at all better for any period of time.

        I’m quite bitter.

  5. New research can always change the way we look at things but I thought a subconscious lack of self esteem was the reason behind a narcissists behavior. After all some one who is confident in themselves won’t feel a need to express their superiority.

    What are your thoughts and feelings regarding the narcissistic personality disorder?

    • The article actually talks about it, it’s on the 3rd page I believe. You should let me know what you think, because I’m scratching my head too. I’m not sure what you mean about “feelings” regarding NPD…it exists? We create it? I’m a big fan of Kohut’s theories on narcissism.

      • I can’t get the article to load on my computer.

        I’m not sure what to think about npd. When I read Sam Vaaknin’s website it sounds like he’s talking about me and that makes me feel nervous. On the other hand I shouldn’t be self diagnosing myself.

        The DSM due out in 2013 might be removing npd as diagnosis.

  6. interesting, i’ll be thinking about this for a while. as an overcinfident narcissist myself, i assure you i’m an absolute puppy. never raised my hand in anger to a single person in my entire life.

    • A narcissist will never admit to be or say of himself he’s a narcissist, so you just gave yourself away. :)

  7. That makes sense in that the people I know with low self-esteem are usually too downtrodden feeling sorry for themselves not being the way society or their own family tells them to be, and they’re usually the ones who take the beatings from other people, usually the cocky, arrogant types.

    Sadly, this group of low-esteemers that takes beatings from cocky arrogant types, included me at some point. I blame the conservativeness of my parental figures who had my life pre-planned out for me, and it didn’t have anything to do with my wants/desires/personality. When I decided it was time to fight back, I got a boyfriend to skip out of the house with just to piss them off. I dealt with his abuse verbally, and physically for four years until I went to college. He even raped me. When I finally broke up with him, he nearly pushed me over the edge of the balcony until I finally kicked him in his balls and locked myself in my dorm room until he left. Everyone saw it, and he wasn’t allowed back onto the campus. If he did manage to get back on campus, everyone would give him evil stares until he ran away.

  8. I know about this a lot because my ex. Unlce pushed and beated my aunt around it’s sad to think about, but the violent isn’t going to stop people are still going to beat other people any age
    Love ya Laci

  9. there’s a difference between ego confidence, and self-esteem confidence. ego relies on others, while self-esteem relies on self.

  10. I’ve always known that this “Bullies have low self-esteem”-stuff was nothing but a lie. If they were having low self-esteem, how would they dare to hurt someone?

  11. …how did low self esteem get to be the accepted view without any empirical data to back it up? I know psychology is a soft science, but yeesh.

    The logical place to go with this is to look at research on the comorbidity between narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, which was easy enough to find – the comorbidity rate is 25% ( http://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/gunderson2001.pdf ). That’s certainly a significant link, but it shows equally that most manage to be antisocial without being narcissistic. The study also shows that feeling unique and superior is more closely associated with NPD than with ASPD, and that antisocials scored higher on exploitative behavior.

    My interpretation of this is that while the two disorders share a lack of empathy, the cause is different. Narcissists empathy is steamrolled by an overinflated sense of their own importance, while antisocials lack empathy to begin with and inflate their sense of self as a result. I know scientists have been able to show physical differences in the brains of pyschopaths as compared to normal people (I was not able to turn up any similar research on narcissists) so it may be a similar but different mutation of the parts of the brain governing empathy and self-importance, though as with practically everything regarding the brain, it’s probably a great deal more complicated than that.

  12. Good article, good read, links are nice. All I have to say is I’ve noticed the ego driven violence(mostly verbal abuse) while playing various video games. In fact its so prevalent in video games that all the sources that say “video games cause violence” should research more about the ego and the competition one engages in while playing and wishes to dominate others with their superiority. At the same time I’ve noticed that people who spend time cooperating in video games achieve far more into/from the game and develop some positive social traits/insight from multi-player games.(which was the case for me)

  13. This one is a little hard to wrap my head around. So the first thought is that low self-esteem is the reason, and now it’s high self esteem. But as I read in of the comments here, if they have such high self esteem, why do feel the need to beat it into people?

    • It’s the stableness of self esteem not the level it’s at which appears to be an indicator of agressiveness. So I’m assuming those whose self esteem level remain at a constant(whether high, low, or medium) more often will be less agressive.

  14. In the celebrated Lord of The Flies the boys go batshit and use violence on those inferior to them(in their view). This brought my to think that its a cycle: As soon as someone becomes inferior to you, you are justified in your own view to attack these people, who are now sub-human, non-relatable. they are deserving. As it works with teen bullying: Sub-human -> easy if not deserving target -> cruel behavior. Of course there is the motive of insecurity, but i am mainly focusing on the decrease of valuing people as soon as power relations shift/

  15. Just from my own personal experience or whatever. I kind of feel like it’s not necessarily having low or high self esteem. I don’t inflict myself on anyone, because I personally feel it’s wrong to do so, but I understand completely the violent urge. I’ve so many times wished to harm others, so much. In my experience I think it comes from the frustration of feeling like you’re normal, and should have normal self worth, but then having constant berating of that idea. So for me it comes from the frustration of, trying to prove I’m just as good as everyone else, and so when people challenge that idea, and I have the feeling of helplessness because I don’t know how to prove otherwise, hatred or anger, or what ever, will come from the relation to past experiences. Because when you’re in a mental corner, you at least have the attempt to over power someone physically. I think with some people though that option becomes second nature. Like some people might become quick with retorts to people’s comments, others might become quick with violence.

    This isn’t really a scientific response or anything. More of a personal experience with the subject filled with self analysis I suppose.

    And as a side note to TokoBali, I have a friend who is medically diagnosed with a form of narcissism. I forget the name or type or whatever, but the point I’m making is he’s a narcissist and he is aware of it. Also growing up, since I didn’t have anyone else to rely on for esteem, I had to make it up my own, so like, being a narcissist seemed almost like a compliment. You can be aware of a condition and still have it and even embrace it.

  16. Isn’t it more about the person being violent views the person he’s brutalizing as LESS?

    I know this seems like the same thing; but it seems that some people say to themselves, “A real [person/man/human/American/whatever] is worthy, and deserves to be left alone, but anyone ELSE is NOT worthy of that respect.”

    So it’s more like the abuser’s SELF esteem is less important than his (diminished) RELATIVE esteem for the abused class.

  17. Hey Laci! Great post you have here — it was an interesting read! I did a research paper on self-control for school recently and man, Roy Baumeister is EVERYWHERE!

    Just a heads up, it seems the link to the original research is down. I would link an alternate URL to it in my comment here, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any free copies :(

  18. Interesting blog, I’ve never held with violent people lacking in self esteem. I have met a number in my lifetime and all have appeared on the surface to be very sociable and outgoing.

    Psychopaths don’t appear to have self esteem issues. I’m not talking about serial killers here but the ones that walk among us. They too however seem to lash out when their boat is rocked or they are not getting what they want from other people. It seems to be driven more from a position of superiority where they have a sense of entitlement to be in control.

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